On both sides of the Bering Strait, summer sea ice has once more dropped to a level that is driving thousands of walruses onto coastal beaches.
Photos taken in Ryrkaypiy in Chukotka, Russia show an estimated 5,000 walruses hauled out in that spot, while across in Alaska, thousands more are hauled out near the village of Point Lay. Villagers in both places are working to protect resting walrus herds from curious onlookers, as walruses hauled out in such large numbers on beaches are prone to being stampeded, killing smaller animals in the crush.
During the late summer and early fall, the Pacific walruses of the Chukchi sea north of Alaska and of Chukotka (Russia) prefer to rest on sea ice over the shallow waters of the continental shelf. In those areas they can readily access food on the seabed. However, in most years since 2007 when Arctic sea ice extent plummeted to a record low, walruses have been forced ashore because there has been no sea ice over their preferred shallow feeding areas.
“This past July was the second warmest on record for Alaska,” says Pete Ewins, WWF Arctic Species specialist. “So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing these animals on the beaches quite early. While haul outs can be potentially dangerous to the animals gathered on shore, we’re concerned about what events such as these mean for the health of the entire Arctic marine system.”
The haul outs are also happening just days before President Obama and a variety of foreign ministers and other senior representatives visit the region to attend the US government hosted GLACIER meeting. During their visit they discuss the changing climate of the region and the need to come together and support a strong climate deal during the global climate negotiations in Paris.
On May 29 damaged fuel tanks leaked into the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers in northern Russia. Diesel fuel evaporates within one to two weeks, but toxic components will remain behind contaminating the water and likely impacting fish stocks for decades to come.
The future health of some polar bears and bowhead whales in the Barents Sea is being decided by Norway’s politicians before the end of the month. The Norwegian parliament will either follow the advice of scientists and protect a globally important area at the edge of Arctic sea ice or allow even more oil and gas development in the region.